This post comes from my brother, who visited Reed Holler 24-26 June.
“Thabo! Thabo!” an older lady whom I do not think Howell has ever met yells with a big smile on her face from across her yard as we walk down the dirt road that circles Reed Holler.
“Dumelang, magogo” replies ‘Thabo’ while clasping his hands together and
bowing slightly. As they continue with pleasantries in what sounds as foreign of a language as I have ever heard (which spreads to all comers of the globe), I am struck at how my ‘little’ brother has not only made enough of an impact for every person we pass to greet him by name (granted he is the only ‘lekgoa’ (white person) within an hour’s drive of the village), but speaks freely in their native tongue. The impact he had made over the past year on the community was quickly becoming very apparent.
My adventure to visit Howell in South Africa began with a 16 hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg (after traveling from Greensboro, NC to Atlanta). If you have not sat in an airline seat in coach for 16 hours before, it is very long. I was very pleased to have taken an 8 hour ‘nap,’ but when I awoke, I realized I had another 8 hours in confines that should be reserved only for convicted felons.
I arrived in Joburg just as the sun was going down and came out of passport control/customs to meet Howell’s host sister Marcia and her husband Ben before we set off for the village. The modern highways around Joburg and Pretoria quickly transitioned to narrow
strips of pavement with very large potholes (or perhaps a continuous series of potholes with some pavement dispersed throughout). After fixing a flat tire and severely bent wheel, we made to the village otherwise unscathed.
Prior to spending the balance of the week traveling in and around Cape Town, I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of days in the village to understand how my brother and his community live their lives. In short, it is very interesting:
1. The modern cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria are a world away from the rural villages. While nice and well kept, their residents live in a very humble setting.
2. The people are as happy as can be. Despite living in these humble conditions, they walk with a skip in their step, show manners towards and respect for others, and their pretty white smiles were apparent everywhere we walked. This is something I think we can all learn from.
3. The people in the village are very proud of what they have. Family (including Thabo) is supremely important, their homes are very well kept, and their personal appearance is second-to-none. Again, a lesson I think we all could use.
4. Life in the village takes a long time. Our dinner, which consisted of six tomatoes, three onions, boiling water, and a cup of cream took us four hours to cook on Howell’s electric burner stove. Filling water buckets, dishes, laundry, ‘showers’ (i.e. bathing from a bucket), and shoe shining (if he only knew….) are other daily chores that, when done with the most basic of appliances, eat up much of your free time.
5. Khombis (i.e. taxi-buses) are a real ‘treat’. Twenty-one people inaminivan is not only cost effective, but can be very entertaining!
6. The residents of Letlhakaneng sincerely enjoy having Thabo as a part of their community: the teachers at his school were excited to see him and talk about the impact he had made on them and their community; when he walked into a classroom, the kids immediately broke into smiles awaiting what song Meneer Thabo would prompt them to sing (and sing they did!); and his family truly considers him one of their own (I guess he hasn’t broken anything yet…).
7. After eating tomato and onion soup, McDonald’s tastes very good…..
All in all, what a fantastic journey it was. Not only seeing Thabo interact with the people in his village, but seeing their interactions with him were truly telling: his impact on this community might not be as clear to him while he is in the moment, but the lessons and experiences he is providing his village both in and out of the classroom will resonate for decades.
I couldn’t be prouder.
My brother’s visit to South Africa was not our first international trip together. Indeed, my brother has been my most consistent companion overseas. We have gotten only slightly lost while tramping in New Zealand, shot (but but mostly missed) game in Scotland, butchered the national language in Austria and Germany, and somehow managed to not run a 44-foot sailboat aground in the Greek Cyclades, among other (mis)adventures. While my service in the Peace Corps has taken me to South Africa, Parker’s own service in the Marine Corps saw him deploy to the Phillipines, Kuwait, and Iraq. The Burkes are well represented in all of America’s Corps, as our father is fond of pointing out.
Though Parker and I have taken some spectatcular trips together, this one might rate most highly among those. My life living and teaching in rural South Africa has been a profound experience, difficult to transcribe to the words of blog post or letter home. The year I have spent here – can it really have been a year already? – has been emotionally demanding at times, but incredible all the same. I am honored and flattered by my brother’s keen interest in understanding my host culture and my experience within it. His eagerness to learn about the culture has rekindled my own interest in my life here. As I showed Parker around Reed Holler, I felt a renewed sense of pride for my adopted community, language, and family.
Within an hour of our grand tour of the village, Parker had earned a Tswana name: Thabang. Its meaning, “Be Happy,” complements my own name, Thabo, meaning “Happiness.” Thereafter we were greeted as “Thabo tibo Thabang,” an oblique reference to some Tswana meme or another. Parker did beautifully, learning the Setswana greetings and generally charming my host family, school colleagues and neighbors. Thabang left the village over a month ago, and yet many in the village still greet me as “Thabo tibo Thabang,” all the same.